It’s difficult to imagine any aspect of our lives left untouched by the internet. In a short space of time social media has become a feature of our every day; the morning scroll through our Twitter feed feels as natural a part of our routine as our morning cup of coffee.
But we’ve become increasingly aware of the potential negative effects too. You can’t have failed to notice stories in recent weeks around potentially harmful online content. The testimony of parents like the father of Molly Russell, who described finding shocking images promoting self-harm and suicide on his daughter’s accounts following her death, has sparked a public debate around the offline consequences of our online lives.
For Ruth Moss, whose daughter died by suicide, that experience is all too familiar.
She says: “My daughter Sophie was just 13 when she took her own life. She was a beautiful child. Funny, sensitive, wearing a huge smile, bubbly and kind, always wanting to please and always wanting to help. But her smile often hid her mental pain.”
I’ve always believed that Sophie’s suicide had many different causes; to assign a simple cause would be reassuring, even offer some comfort, but life is rarely that simple. However, the online material that we realised she had been looking at was clearly very negative for any young or vulnerable person. Graphic images, memes, examples of how to successfully take one’s life could in no way be deemed helpful and were horrific to look at. And yet, in spite of strict parental controls, my child had managed to access and view all of this material.”
Common sense says that this is wrong. We expect major companies, traditional media and advertising to prioritise safety in this country – the online environment should be no different.”
At Samaritans we know suicide is a complex issue and trying to unpick and understand the factors that lead up to any death is very difficult. But as our online lives become an ever more central part of our everyday lives we can’t ignore implications for young people who are struggling to cope.
To help us better understand this picture we’ve undertaken research with Bristol University, exploring young people’s experiences of suicide, self-harm and social media. This found that at least a quarter of patients who had self-harmed with high suicidal intent had used the internet in connection with their self-harm.
While this research highlighted the positive role social media could play in offering a space for young people to share their experiences and access support, it found that that harmful content remained abundant and easily accessible online.
At Samaritans, we want all online platforms to make it harder to find harmful content (including that which includes details of methods and lethality, as well as triggering content).
They need robust safety policies in place with highly trained moderators to ensure these policies are being implemented. We also need to find better ways of identifying and restricting content that glamourises and encourages suicide and self-harm.
We’ve been encouraged to see the UK government recognise the need for action in this area and by Instagram and Facebook’s recent announcements that it will remove harmful content related to self-harm and suicide. But this is a just a start, as we know suicide prevention requires a broader approach that extends on and offline.
If internet companies are serious about being a part of the solution, there is a clear opportunity to work alongside policy-makers, the health and third sector to invest in research and develop new mechanisms for connecting people in distress with the support they need.
It’s also essential that action online is matched by action offline. Suicide remains one of the leading causes of death among young people. In Scotland, last year 64 young people age 15-24 young people took their own life, more than those of the same age who lost their lives to all types of cancer combined.
If we focus solely on social media, we risk missing the scale and complexity of youth suicide. We need a public health approach which invests in education, services and research. If we want to prevent more young lives being lost, we must ensure that – online and offline – the right support is there whenever and wherever young people need it.
James Jopling, Executive Director of Samaritans Scotland
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